'Made by China' is what Chinese consumers want now
International companies wary as mainland's middle classes turn to cheaper clones made by domestic brands originally designed overseas
Akio Toyoda has China on his mind. On Tuesday, the day he announced record earnings, the Toyota Motors president warned of a sharp slowdown in the world's biggest market, echoing concerns already aired by BMW.
But another development in China may spell even more trouble for global carmakers: a US$21,700 Land Rover lookalike manufactured domestically. An SUV bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Evoque model is to hit the market at a third the price of the original, and it's already racking up thousands of pre-orders.
Jaguar Land Rover's Ralf Speth has railed at the rise of China's "copy-and-paste" car industry. But complaining is all the chief executive and his peers can do as China continues churning out ever more clones of cars, electronics, appliances and clothes originally designed in other countries.
The prevailing opinion in boardrooms from New York to Frankfurt to Tokyo has long been that China, which is minting new millionaires at the fastest rate in history and creating a massive middle class, will be easy prey for established brands with expertise in hawking goods to higher-income consumers. The richer mainlanders get, multinational companies presumed, the more they will want Burberry in the closet, Rolex on the wrist and Lexus parked outside.
What these chiefs did not anticipate is mainland consumers' penchant for labels saying "Made by China" (if not "Made in China"). As analyst Thomas Gatley of GaveKal Dragonomics argues in a new report, multinationals may already be losing Chinese consumers they thought were theirs for the taking.
"There are now signs that local Chinese companies are capturing much of the gains from this new stage of consumer spending - a worrying development for multinationals counting on China growth," Gatley finds.
The vehicle market is emblematic of the trend. Many of China's nouveau riche aspire to own an SUV, which should be great news for the Toyotas, Daimlers and Fords of the world. But in the early phases of China's SUV boom, the companies that flourished were foreign manufacturers with local joint ventures. Sales for those companies jumped more than 70 per cent in 2013 alone.
Shanghai Volkswagen's Tiguan, for example, remains the second-best-selling SUV on the mainland. Domestic companies are beginning to catch up. In the first half of this year, sales of Chinese-branded SUVs rose about 30 per cent versus 12 per cent for foreign names.
One can debate why mainland consumers are flocking to names like Great Wall Motors, JAC Motors, Changan Automobile Group and Landwind (maker of the Land Rover lookalike). Value? Familiarity? Nationalist instincts? There's probably no single answer - just as with the many Americans who only buy American-made cars.
"What's even more surprising, is that the domestic brands seem to have gained market share without cutting their margins to the bone in a ruinous zero-sum game," Gatley says. If corporate China has indeed cracked the code of offering the right mix of style, quality and price, multinational executives like Akio Toyoda are in for a bumpy decade.
Are there other sectors at such a tipping point? Recent sales figures from Japan's Shisedo and Anglo-Dutch Unilever bear out the findings of a July 1 Bain report that "local brands gained share over foreign competitors for the third year in a row".
Chief executives at multinational giants are quite skilled as hyping the China-potential scenario to shareholders: 1.3 billion people who want to live like Americans are getting richer and savvier by the day. But if local Chinese companies repeat the success of domestic SUV makers in other industries, international chief executives will have some serious explaining to do. They will also have to quickly remodel their business strategies.
The rapid inroads made in China by domestic smartphone makers like Xiaomi, for example, suggest danger ahead for international brands. There's a very real risk that the emergence of Chinese consumers will be more of a local story than a global one. Overseas companies that take them for granted do so at their own peril.